Billy Butler Is Bloody Brilliant

Billy Butler has been a familiar force on the Seacoast for decades, a storied lintel in the playhouse that is Portsmouth. He’s a writer, producer, playwright, actor and musician, and is founder of the noire band Bitter Pill that performs dark ditties in morbid theatrical makeup. Dubbed “bloody folk,” it’s a genre that could have been drawn from the veins of Weill and Brecht. Butler’s earlier opus, “Gay Bride of Frankenstein,” premiered at the Players’ Ring in Portsmouth in 2009 and that same year became a hit at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. So, unshutter the footlights, lean back, and duck any splatter emanating from the stage.

Photo by David Mendelsohn

  • I learned to play piano and guitar from my family. My ma is a classically trained pianist, and my brother is a virtuoso violinist, but folk, blues, jazz and rock were big in our house as well.
  • I became involved with the theatre in Manchester before I was 10, and wanting to be my own artist, I decided to focus my efforts on acting. Little did I know how those early days would shape who I am.
  • I acted in a few professional shows and toured a bit as a young actor. I ended up washing in with the tide to Portsmouth as a teen.
  • My first experience was doing a production of “Oliver” at the Prescott Park Arts Festival. I hung in Market Square with punks, sporting a blue mohawk, Doc Martins, and a fur coat I found at a Salvation Army. I read my crappy poetry and original songs at open mic nights, went to a million basement concerts, and did every play I could.
  • I have written four full-length musicals, an immersive show, a few albums and a handful of soundtracks.
  • No particular genre. I like to blur lines and mix things up.
  • My latest show, “The Brechtones,” might have been my most challenging to date. It is a play with music and beat poetry. I not only wrote the book, music and lyrics, but I also starred in it — and produced it. Really pushed me to edge of my abilities, but it was quite rewarding.
  • Bitter Pill released our first record, “Prepare Your Throats,” in the fall of 2018. Now, we are touring as a band playing clubs, bars, festivals, UFO landings and government superfund sites.
  • The core of the band is my daughter Emily on vocal and ukulele, me on vocal/cello, Mike McKay on banjo/mandolin, Tomer Oz (our resident “actor”) plays acoustic guitar, and we have a rotisserie lead guitar position with either Andrew Creeden or Jon McCormack. Then we have our circus friends who do everything from fire dancing to aerial acts.
  • We do wear creepy makeup. It is a homage to vaudeville with a dark twist. We celebrate Halloween every day, so we will dress however we are feeling, but we always keep it macabre.
  • We describe ourselves as a “Bloody Folk Band.” Bloody as the traditional English adjective, bloody because we mostly talk about blood and death, and folk because we are folk.

“Prepare Your Throats” is the soundtrack to Butler’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, “Titus Andronicus.” He spent more than a year writing, as well as arranging, the traditional folk songs for “Titus Andronicus Musicus.” During the play’s run, Bitter Pill recorded the album in one afternoon, live, with no edits or overdubs, says Butler. You can buy it on vinyl, CD or via digital download at bitterpill.bandcamp.com, or other digital stores where you buy and stream music.

Categories: Q&A

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